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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of 175+ essays on this website.
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Integral Accommodationism

A Response to Brad Reynolds

Frank Visser

Both Reynolds and I believe (and agree on this) that Wilber has erroneously and frequently introduced the notion of Spirit into scientific discussions.

Brad Reynolds and I are having a lively discussion about Ken Wilber's attempt to integrate science and religion, with special focus on evolution (both in the narrow, biological and in the wider sense). In one of his essays, he placed this Wilber quote at the top: "One of the crucial ingredients in any integration of science and religion is the integration of empirical evolution and transcendental Spirit…. Only Spirit, which is beyond any feelings of Nature and beyond any thoughts of Mind, can effect this radical unity. Spirit alone transcends and includes Mind and Nature" (The Marriage of Sense and Soul).

This quote captures the nature of Wilber's project, both as to its promise and it potential pitfalls. What does "integration" in this context actually mean? Can "empirical evolution" and "transcendental Spirit" be integrated at all? Or do these represent two different domains which can live happily and peacefully next to eachother, as long as they don't trespass on the other domain? This trespassing into forbidden terrain can have two versions:

  1. category mistake #1: the denial of the existence of Spirit by science (usually called "scientism" by spiritually inclined authors)
  2. category mistake #2: the introduction of Spirit into the scientific realm (this has been dubbed "religionism" by atheist Jerry Coyne)

Reynolds accuses me of committing the first category error, but I believe that is not the case. I don't deny Spirit; I deny its relevance for science. And that brings me to the second category error: both Reynolds and I believe (and agree on this) that Wilber has erroneously and frequently introduced the notion of Spirit into scientific discussions—or perhaps we should say: monologues about how integral theory should approach science.

The key quote I would take is taken from Eye to Eye (1983):

[T]he strict theory of natural selection suffers from not acknowledging the role played by Spirit in evolution. (Wilber 1983: 205).

And no, this is not taken from a recent Wilber video or book, but from one of his older books (which Reynolds advises us to rely on).

FINDING WILBER'S GOD

Now, many words have been spent on this between the two of us, but this seems to be the crux. Is Wilber guilty of category mistake #2, yes or no? If so, he is in the company of theistic evolutionists like Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (2000), who is quoted by Reynolds as a good example of a religious believer who is at the same time a respected scientist.

Darwin's God? Wasn't Darwin an atheist, or at least an agnostic? Miller ends his book with the famous closing lines of Darwin's The Origin of Species: "There is grandeur in this view of life; with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one..." and adds "What kind of God do I believe in? The answer is in those words. I believe in Darwin's God." Did Miller not know or realize that Darwin regretted having inserted the phrase "by the Creator" as of the second edition of Origin? As he wrote on 29 March 1863 in a letter to his friend Hooker: "But I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant 'appeared' by some wholly unknown process." Where does that actually leave "Darwin's God"?

Kenneth Miller
Kenneth R. Miller

Miller is interesting because he is a devout Catholic, but also a strong defender of evolutionary theory against the attacks of Intelligent Design, even in court (he testified in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case against Intelligent Design to be taught in schools as science). The final verdict of the judge John E. Jones III is relevant to mention here: "To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect... However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions." (New York Times, Dec. 21, 2005) How does Wilber's notion of "Evolution as Spirit-in-Action" not qualify as "an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion"? On whose side would Wilber stand in court?

Yet, Miller also opposes the stridently anti-religion stance of atheists like Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne. How does Miller reconcile these seemingly incompatible points of view of science and religion? According to Reynolds, he claims that spirituality and science "can work together if each remains in its own domain of knowledge". This seems to preclude any trespassing of Spirit into the opposite domain. Ever tried working together while staying in different rooms? Or is some doublespeak involved here? While Miller defends evolution, as explained by science, he also believes that evolution is, so to speak, God's way of creation—an admission of weakness, if you ask me. That matches perfectly to Wilber's "Evolution is the mode and manner of Spirit's creation". But what do we gain by this "integration", what we didn't already know from science? Anything at all? What mode? What manner? These are essentially fact-free proclamations.

How does Wilber's notion of "Evolution as Spirit-in-Action" not qualify as "an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion"? On whose side would Wilber stand in court?

Bear in mind that Wilber's attitude towards evolutionary science has been much less friendly than Miller's. Wilber usually just dismissively downplays the capacities of science to explain biological complexity, often resorting to standard creationist arguments about micro- and macroevolution and pretending these are commonly accepted. Here's a nice one, taken from the video "Taking Evolution into Account" (I happen to take the online Wilber seriously as well):

The more you look at the mere neo-Darwinian synthesis, the more absolutely inadequate it becomes to account for evolution.[1]

So Wilber's strategy is different from Miller's, though both are accommodationists. Where Miller fully embraces evolutionary theory, he inconsistently re-introduces religion by claiming that evolution is Gods way of creation. But Wilber has a vested interest in seeing evolutionary science fail, so he can promote his spiritual philosophy. Miller has fiercely criticized Intelligent Design in public (both for scientific and theological reasons), whereas Wilber has on occasion been harshly critical of neo-Darwinism (though he is not a professional biologist). Interesting differences!

Ken Miller and Ken Wilber: Two different accommodationist views on science and religion.
KEN MILLER KEN WILBER
Neo-Darwinism explains evolution adequately Neo-Darwinism is "absolutely inadequate"
Intelligent Design is wrong about neo-Darwinian evolution Intelligent Design is right about neo-Darwinian evolution
God created the process of evolution that produced us Evolution is the mode and manner of Spirit's creation
Religion and science are not incompatible Religion and science can be integrated
I believe, not in spite of, but because of evolution Evolution itself provides evidence for Spirit

When talking about the (in)compatibility between science and religion we are of course taking this in a theoretical and not a psychological sense. People are known to hold many incompatible beliefs, but that's not the issue. The fact that many scientists are religious doesn't prove science and religion are logically compatible.

In his Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (2015) Jerry Coyne has called the idea that God works through evolution a "religious add-on". For Coyne all these religious speculations are nothing but religious "add-ons", adding no insight whatsoever. He has coined the term "religionism" for it, the equivalent of the much wider known "scientism"—an overstepping of boundaries and claiming insight and authority where it doesn't really exist.[2]

Yes, Wilber is a "religionist", who frequently oversteps his boundaries. Or one could call him an "integral accommodationist" who claims to "integrate" the domains of spirituality and science, without actually specifying what we gain by this integration, or how this can effectively be accomplished. Accommodationists believe science and religion are not incompatible.

A BASIC POINT OF AGREEMENT

I happen to find Dennett's writings about evolution infinitely more insightful than Wilber's dogmatic and unqualified proclamations.

Reynolds makes much of the power of spiritual vision, through the "Eye of Spirit" or the eye of contemplation (a metaphor Wilber derived in Eye to Eye (1983) from the Christian mystics St. Bonaventura and Hugh of St. Victor* to argue for his version of epistemological pluralism) to resolve these issues, but I am not really interested in that area (those days are over). My point is both more limited and more damaging to Wilber's position. Wilber argues that evolution itself (in the broadest sense) is evidence for Spirit and I challenge him on that. That's all. I don't deny the possible value of other ways of knowing (within and limited to their own domains).

In his recent essay "Partially True, Partially False", Reynolds agrees with me on this basic point:

Mostly, my contention will be that Wilber himself has made a category error when he tries to insert Eros-Spirit into the evolutionary equation as an explanatory “force” instead of emphasizing that the entire evolutionary process, on ALL levels (physiosphere, biosphere, noosphere, theosphere, et al) is Spirit-in-action as a whole.

So we're basically on the same page here. I don't mind about Reynolds' vision of a spiritual universe at all. I just don't see the added value of that. He argues that those with spiritual vision will have a deeper appreciation of nature, something in which reductionism supposedly "fails miserably", but I beg to differ on this. Many evolutionary biologists and ecologists have a deep love of nature.

Further, Reynolds mentions in a recent post that Wilber agrees, "in part", with Daniel Dennett, a "confessed atheist", about the pervasive nature of evolution, but their views of evolution could not be more different. Dennett wrote Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1996). And what was that idea? That evolution works without any divine intervention. I happen to find Dennett's writings about evolution infinitely more insightful than Wilber's dogmatic and unqualified proclamations.[3]

Intelligent Design

That I am restricting myself to biological evolution instead of seeing it as a much wider process, encompassing both cosmological, psychological and cultural processes, is a point Reynolds regularly brings up, but it is not relevant. Even taking that wider perspective (and I agree we can use the term "evolution" in a loose way for those fields of study) the same question returns: what do we gain by seeing Spirit behind all this? Does it give us any insight into what's really going on? Any? Details please.

I still need to see a good example of this. Not a grandiose knowledge claim, but a very specific and enlightening example. Looking forward to Reynolds' upcoming essays. But I do think he will have to disappoint me, by his own words. For in his latest essay, "A Toast to the Divine Spirit of the Kosmos...", he declared this to be a category error he wishes to avoid:

My future essays will address other of Visser's Fallacies, such as his inaccurate claim that mystical experiences should add additional insights to the relative world, one of his main complaints. This is an outright CATEGORY ERROR for he is asking the Eye of Spirit to reveal specific mechanics best uncovered with the Eye of Science. No one ever said that, Frank.

No one, except Ken Wilber. For he claimed, in his recent tome The Religion of Tomorrow (2017):

You can even see evolution as driven by “Spirit-in-action,” which I think is the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution satisfactorily. (p. 14)

One commenter on Facebook sarcastically summarized my long-standing criticism of Wilber's take on evolution as being as meaningless and futile as complaining that "a hammer is not a screwdriver" (i.e. Wilber is a philosopher, not a scientist). Well, perhaps that sums it up: Wilber claims the integral vision is relevant in that domain.

So this last quote from Wilber is not really a slip of the tongue, or of the pen, but a deeply engrained and cherished view Wilber has expounded over four decades. No amount of mushroom taking will help you here.

NOTES

[1] Ken Wilber, "Taking evolution into account", 2014, Fourth Turning Conference, video #4. Reposted on integrallife.com, December 19, 2017

[2] Frank Visser, "Wilber vs. Coyne, On The Conflict Between Science and Religion and the (Im)possibility of a Resolution", www.integralworld.net, June 2015.

[3] Frank Visser, "Eros as Skyhook, Ken Wilber Meets Daniel Dennett", www.integralworld.net, April 2016.

FURTHER READING

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*"For this triple vision, man was endowed with a triple eye, as explained by Hugh of St. Victor: the eye of flesh, of reason, and of contemplation; the eye of flesh, to see the world and what it contains; the eye of reason, to see the soul and what it contains; the eye of contemplation, to see God and that which is within Him. Through the eye of the flesh, man was to see the things outside him; with the eye of reason, the things within him; with the eye of contemplation, the things above him." —?St. Bonaventure, The Breviloquium, Part II, Chapter 12, No. 5 (Wikipedia)




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